It has been one of the stories of this World Cup. After all, every tournament needs that, you know, uncertainty surrounding a star player’s availability.
Will Mohamed Salah be fit to play? How serious was the shoulder injury sustained in the Uefa Champions League final? How much of an impact can he actually have?
Once confirmed as part of Egypt’s 23 for Russia, the speculation sustained. Salah sat out the opening defeat to Uruguay, an unused substitute, despite Hector Cuper announcing 24 hours previously that his marquee forward would “100 per cent” play.
Salah could only watch on from the sidelines as Egypt lost in the closing minutes. Now he has been declared certain to start on Tuesday.
Although doubts exist regarding his sharpness, his participation is key: without the livewire Liverpool attacker, Egypt are a far inferior outfit. His return is felt tangibly and intangibly. With Salah in last-season-Salah form, the team’s limits feels boundless.
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First goal is vital
For the most part, Egypt were solid against Uruguay. They defended well, as Cuper’s sides like to focus upon, but they surprised their opponents during the opening exchanges by pressing high, hassling and harrying.
Initially, it worked, blunting Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, arguably the tournament’s most fearsome strike duo. Against Russia, Egypt will need to be concentrated and compact once more.
Tarek Hamed, replaced early in the second half because of a back injury, should be available again, adding steel to midfield alongside the competent Mohamed Elneny.
However, Egypt need to score. Given their recent record and results, they need to score first. For that, Salah’s inclusion is a must, while Mahmoud Trezeguet is fit after limping through the final moments of Uruguay.
A draw is most probably not good enough with regard to qualifying for the qualifying stages.
Egypt will seek to do what a Cuper-led Egypt try to do: score and defend a lead like their lives depend on it.
Retaining focus for the entirety
Having repelled Suarez, Cavani and Uruguay for 89 minutes, Egypt conceded late. Mohamed El Shenawy stood rooted to the spot, unable to react to Jose Gimenez’s powerful header from a corner.
Egypt’s players sank to the turf; sat on the bench and unable to impact proceedings, Salah hung his head.
As games wear on, Egypt have to do better at keeping theirs. Uruguay’s goal was the fifth time in the past eight matches that Egypt have conceded in the final five minutes.
An unwelcome theme has emerged. It is particularly tough to stomach considering Egypt used to be known for scoring in clutch situations.
They are without a win in seven matches, where late concessions have cost them. It did in Yetkaterinburg on Friday. Given their penchant for defending a lead, four days on, it must not in Saint Petersburg.
Breaking records or hearts
Salah’s inactivity against Uruguay was not the only surprise. Essam El Hadary had been expected to start, the veteran goalkeeper poised to become the most veteran player to ever compete at a World Cup. At 45 and six months, it was anticipated El Hadary would be selected and Colombia stopper Faryd Mondragon would be relegated to second on the all-time list for oldest in tournament history.
Yet Cuper chose El Shenawy, even though El Hadary had a place in the record books, even though his replacement had previously featured only four times for Egypt – and 150-odd less than El Hadary. But he justified Cuper’s faith in him.
He made a smart save at the feet of Suarez, twice kept out Cavani. He could do nothing about Gimenez’s winner. Justifiably, El Shenawy was named man of the match. Sentiment aside, he should continue in goal.
Capitalising on complacency
Unexpected, but not undeserved, Russia got off to a flier. Battling injury and angst in the build-up and long before it as well, the hosts were too good for Saudi Arabia in the tournament’s opening game last Thursday. They won 5-0. They could have scored more.
Almost in an instant, the problems and pessimism evaporated. As such, they come into the match with Egypt buoyed by their performance. Although the pressure remains, the dismantling of Saudi means they approach Egypt knowing a draw could well be enough to progress to the knockouts.
Egypt, on the other hand, most likely need to win. That could actually work in their favour. Should Russia display any slackness, and predictably they have vowed not to underestimate their opponents, then Egypt must pounce upon it.
Often reactive, they were more proactive against Uruguay. It nearly paid off. It is up to Cuper to embolden his troops once more.